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Monday Mouse Watch: Is Steve Jobs the new power behind-the-throne at the Magic Kingdom?

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Monday Mouse Watch: Is Steve Jobs the new power behind-the-throne at the Magic Kingdom?

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It was the timing of things that really confused folks in Tinseltown. Or so I hear.

I mean, here was Walt Disney Studios with the biggest hit of the summer, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." It seemed like -- every day that passed -- this Gore Verbinksi film would blow yet another box office record out of the water.

This news -- coupled with reports that "Cars" merchandise was flying off store shelves nationwide (Which took a lot of the sting out of Disney's initial disappointment with Pixar's newest animated feature. Which studio execs had originally hoped would become another "Finding Nemo" -sized smash, but -- instead -- just became your garden-variety summer blockbuster) -- should have been the cause of a great celebration.

But Mickey didn't break out the party hats and streamers last Tuesday. Instead, the studio PR department issued a rather somber press release which first announced the departure of Nina Jacobson, the highly regarded head of the Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, then revealed that Disney would soon begin cutting staff levels at the studio.

Though the Mouse was reluctant to reveal exactly how many Disney employees worldwide would soon be let go, press releases provided by the company repeatedly mentioned a 20 - 25% staff reduction occurring over the next six months. Which could eventually translate into as many as 650 studio staffers losing their jobs.

Why -- in the face of such overwhelming cinematic success, with money now literally pouring into the company's coffers -- would Walt Disney Studios chose this exact moment to swing the axe?

To be honest, one of the main reasons that Mickey made these cuts now is that the studio's competitors -- to be specific, Warner Bros., Paramount & Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. -- have all made similar overhead cuts over the past few months. And given that the Mouse is nothing if not competitive, if the competition was now taking a leaner & meaner approach toward the running of their studios ... Well, Disney felt that it had no choice but to then follow suit.

That said, I guess I should also mention here that -- for the past year -- Bob Iger has been reviewing all aspects of operations at the Walt Disney Company. As he looked to change the multi-national corporation that Michael Eisner built into something that Iger would be much more comfortable with running.

"And who exactly has Bob been consulting with during this incredibly crucial period?,"  you ask. "Who regularly has been whispering in Iger's ear about what Disney can do to transform itself from an old media-based company into a new media-savvy operation?" ... Would you believe Apple chairman Steve Jobs?

According to company insiders, even though Jobs has repeatedly said that he is not interested in a managerial role at the Walt Disney Company, and even though Steve has gone so far as to insist that he not be paid for serving on Disney's board of directors ... Make no mistake, folks. Steve is not some disinterested third party. Thanks to the Pixar acquistion, Jobs is now the largest individual shareholder of Walt Disney Company stock. And Steve has some very definite ideas about what Disney should be doing in order to send the corporation's stock price soaring.

Which is why -- via daily e-mails & phone calls -- Jobs has been making Iger aware of all of his notions. And Bob ... Well, the way I hear it, Iger has not only been listening to what Jobs has to say, Disney's new chairman has also been talking with Apple's chairman about changes that Bob is possibly considering making at the Walt Disney Company. Which is why Jobs knew that Iger was considering replacing Nina Jacobson ...

Nina Jacobson, former president of
Buena Vista Motion Picture Group
Photo courtesy Google Images

... with Oren Aviv, the head of Disney's marketing department  ...

Oren Aviv, the new president of
the Buena Vista Motion Picture Group
Photo courtesy Google Images

... long before any other member of Disney's board of directors knew that this change was possibly in the works.

Jobs is said to have particularly approved of Oren (Who is said to be one of Dick Cook's proteges) ...

Walt Disney Studio Chairman Dick Cook
Photo courtesy Google Images

... in charge of day-to-day operations at Disney Studios. Supposedly saying to the effect that " ... Now that we have a guy in charge who can actually pick pictures that he know how to market, the studio's sure to do a lot better at the box office."

Of course, given that Walt Disney Studios will now be cutting back its annual output from 15-21 films to just 8-10 new releases per year, one hopes that the company will now put a lot more care & thought into the making & the marketing of its motion pictures. Which will also (hopefully) eventually have a positive impact on the corporation's bottom line.

Now where this all gets interesting is that ... This cutting-back-on-the-number-of-films-that-Walt-Disney-Studios-will-be-releasing-each-year idea? That also supposedly came from Jobs.

You see, back in 1998, right after Apple CEO Gil Amelio had been ousted and Steve had been named as interim head of that corporation, Jobs killed a number of Apple products (I.E. The Newton, Cyberdog & OpenDoc). All because -- in order for Apple Computer to return to greatness -- Steve felt that it was important for the corporation to concentrate on doing just a few things well. So that -- over time -- consumers would once again have faith in (more importantly, develop enthusiasm for) Apple's product lines once more.

This is what Jobs has supposedly been stressing to Iger lately. That Bob has to do something in order for the Disney name to mean something again. That Iger has to get people to start associating the "Walt Disney" name with quality once more. And the easiest way to do this is by first cutting back the number of films that the studio produces each year and then by making sure that all of these new motion pictures are entertaining & of the highest possible quality. 

And Bob ... So far, he seems to be taking Steve's suggestions to heart. Walt Disney Studio's output over the next 18 months will be pared back to half of what it used to be. And word has gone out to agents all over Hollywood that Disney is now on the look-out for some top quality family-friendly scripts.

Will all of these management changes, staff cuts plus this renewed emphasis on quality really have a significant impact on Disney's box office share? Or -- at the very least -- result in a few new watchable motion pictures? To be honest, it'll be a year or more before we actually know if Apple's influence has a positive impact on the Walt Disney Company. If Iger & Jobs' daily discussions actually bear any fruit.

But what do you folks think? Are you comfortable with the idea that Bob & Steve are now supposedly so buddy-buddy? That -- even though he has repeatedly said that he has no interest in becoming the chairman of the Walt Disney Company -- that Apple's chairman is rapidly emerging as the real power behind-the-throne at the Magic Kingdom?

Your thoughts?

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  • In all honesty, I would have to say it's about time!  This would definately help from diluting the brand.  Now if they would only do the same thing with the dvd market.  They really should trim the number of titles out there and quite possibly put a better limit as to the length of time those movies should be around.  
  • ABOUT TIME (ditto).
    Jobs revitilized Apple into what it is now, trusted, well liked, and pretty damn good products.
    Will Disney become the same it used to be? We'll see.
    Great article Jim.
  • This is the type of article I come to JHM for. It's great to see Disney manuvering itself to make fewer, high quality films than to just keep throwing movie after movie at the filmgoing public. I remember in the early to mid 90s any disney animated movie was a must-see..... I'm glad they're trying to use that approach with all their movies. Quality sells, and you don't even have to market it.......
  • Obviously Jobs has gonna have some influence at Disney, it's inevitable. But I hardly think he's emerging as the REAL power. Bob Iger has revitalised the company and has been a saving grace with or without Jobs' help. Still, it's nice to see an article on here that is actually optimistic about Disney for once.
  • First, congratulations to Jim for writing an entire info article about Apple and Disney in which the word "Lasseter" is never once mentioned. :)
    "You see, back in 1998, right after Apple CEO Gil Amelio had been ousted and Steve had been named as interim head of that corporation, Jobs killed a number of Apple products (I.E. The Newton, Cyberdog & OpenDoc). All because -- in order for Apple Computer to return to greatness -- Steve felt that it was important for the corporation to concentrate on doing just a few things well."
    Specifically, he thought that the Quadra, the Mac++, the AppleTV, etc., were confusing computer buyers who couldn't tell one from the other, and overhauled Apple with the "Model T" strategy that people should come to Apple to buy one immediately iconic product for each market that met their specific needsr:  The iMac, the Powerbook, and the PowerMac.

    And when it comes to "Disney" and "In need of iconic brand product", you already know where we're headed on this one:
    When people come to a Disney movie, they may not be coming to see an inspirational sports drama, teen chick-flix or Bruckheimer non-Pirates contract-filler--But when they come to see a theatrical animated, they expect to see a Disney movie, unless Pixar's name is on it.  And looks like a few certain hyperactive David Stainton-era Dreamworks-wannabe projects have just been tossed out with yesterday's Newtons...
  • Could this be Roy's Coup d'tate?  I mean, we haven't heard from him in a while.  And if you don't think Steve has any power... being the single largest share holder... You don't know Steve.
  • :TikiBird73 said:
    Could this be Roy's Coup d'tate?"

    Oh yes, I had forgotten that Roy & Jobs got along quite well, at least I seem to remember Jim reporting that.
  • Hey Jim, What is the status of that 40's Mickey, Donald, and Goofy pirate cartoon that may air with At World's End?
  • I don't trust Jobs.  At all.  I think he's overhyped, underwhelming, and continuously steps in piles of, well, luck.  We all know the story of how Pixar exploded despite his demands otherwise.  How about Apple?  Sure, he pushed for the iPod (and the DRM hell that is iTunes), but does it make Apple a bit of a one-trick pony?  Where would Apple be without the iPod?  Jobs turned the company around with that one product, but Apple's soul, the computer line?  Really only improved thanks to riding the iPod's coattails...

    But I agree with him.
    Disney needs to get back to quality.

    Eisner was a bean counter.  All that mattered was money made today vs. money spent today, so he cut costs wherever possible and sunk money into what was currently profitable.  The result was a tarnished Disney brand.  What always sold Disney was it being quality - if something said "Disney" on it you knew you'd enjoy it.  Eisner changed that.  I think it was most evident in the parks, where rides got cheaper and garbage started appearing, but it was noticeable throughout the company.

    Which is a problem.  When people trust the company less they turn to it less.  Simply put - I think Eisner killed the Magic of Disney, and I think someone needs to bring it back.
    Eisner was all about money made today.  The thing is, sometimes you need to spend money today to ensure quality which, in turn ensures a steady stream of money tomorrow...
  • For Steve Jobs to be at the top of his game so consistently is more than mere luck.  I find him to be quite sincere, honest and ethical for refraining from taking pay for being on those boards.  Give the man his props.  
  • "For Steve Jobs to be at the top of his game so consistently is more than mere luck."

    Apple didn't do all that well his first time around.
    Apple was doing extremely poorly his second time around, it's market share still shrinking, much below 5%.
    The iPod saved it.  

    Pixar is extremely successful for its animation.  Jobs tried to squash its animation unit.  It wasn't until it started getting external recognition that Jobs turned to it.

  • Say what you will about Jobs being lucky or not, but the one constant is that he has always made sure Apple was known for quality.  If we can get Disney back to the same because he is whispering in Bob's ear, GREAT.  And major DITTO to the idea that the cut the crap that currently constitutes their straight to DVD line.  There is no excuse for  most of that.
  • Just a note about Steve Jobs' assets.  What most people don't realize is that, at this point, Jobs' Disney holdings dwarf his Apple holdings.  He's going to be paying pretty close attention at Disney.
  • If this is true i am glad that they are finally thinking of  concentrating on making the Disney name a qualilty brand again.  I agree with the first post.  The next step is for them to slash the production of the direct to DVD sequals that have diminsihed the Disney name.  I really feel that these constant cheap movies  (cinderella II) are the cause of Disney's diminshing status in the animation world.  People started getting used to seeing these cheap quality DVD's and its repetitive cycle in procudction that the just felt it was not worht the trip to the movies.

    Lets hope that this also means that it will start affecting the quality of attractions in the theme parks and Disney gets back to its roots of quality over quantity

  • I believe that was one of the first things out of Lassiter's mouth during the merger -- the immediate need to get rid of these unnecessary direct-to-dvd sequals (unfortunately, not before The Fox & the Hound II and Brother Bear II).  But whether it came from Lassiter, Iger or Jobs -- its a good move for the company.  Put the quality back in the name so people can trust the product again.  Cinderella II?  Ugh.  Sometimes a happily-ever-after is all that's ever required.

    "Lets hope that this also means that it will start affecting the quality of attractions in the theme parks and Disney gets back to its roots of quality over quantity."  

    I fervently hope so! Great article Jim!
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